If democracy is a transparent system of government by the people, in which elected officials represent their constituents, then America is failing the test of democracy in its foreign policy. Because, far from governing on behalf of the people they represent, the people are being deceived by their representatives. This failure is especially egregious and dangerous in the domain of the reality and nature of coup attempts.
On June 28, 2009, in what was really an extraordinary rendition, Honduras’ democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya, was seized at gunpoint by hooded soldiers and forced onto a plane that, after refueling at the U.S. military base of Palmerola, took him off Costa Rica.
Zelaya says that, that morning, he was the victim of a coup. Almost all of the international community and the Organization of American States (OAS) agree with him. The American position was more noncommittal. The White House never did officially call what happened a coup.
How could they? They cooperated with it. Most US aid was never fully suspended. Zelaya even says that “after the coup d’état . . . the US has increased its military support to Honduras”. The US never withdrew her ambassador. And the US refused to call for Zelaya’s return, despite that call being made by the OAS and the United Nations. Though the OAS refused to recognize the new coup installed president, the Clinton State Department refused to follow it on that course.
Later the US would insist on recognizing the coup leaders as the winners of an election that the OAS, the Latin American Mercosur trade bloc and the twenty-three Latin American and Caribbean nation strong Rio Group refused to recognize. So illegitimate was the election that the UN refused to even bother monitoring it.
Latin American expert Mark Weisbrot told me in a correspondence that “the Obama administration acknowledged that they were talking to the [Honduran] military right up to the day of the coup, allegedly to convince them not to do it”. But, he added, “I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t convince them not to do it if they really wanted to: the Honduran military is pretty dependent on the US”.
But despite the refusal to call it a coup and the insistence on recognizing the new government as legitimate, the US knew it was a coup. There was a large and dishonest difference between what American officials knew and were telling each other and what they were telling the public they represented.
The White House knew it was a coup. And the State Department knew too, because they’re the ones who told the White House. By July 24, 2009, less than a month after the coup, the White House, Clinton and many others were in receipt of a cable sent from the US embassy in Honduras. In an almost comic lack of subtlety that was clearly never meant to be public, the cable is called “Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup”. In it, the embassy says “There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup . . . .” Their conclusions could not be clearer. Unlike the conclusions that were provided to the American people, the embassy explicitly calls it a “coup” and says that “[t]here is no doubt”. And just in case there were any objections, the cable adds that “. . . none of the . . . arguments [of the coup defenders] has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution”.
In Paraguay, in June 2012, the democratically elected Fernando Lugo was replaced by the right wing Frederico Franco in a coup. The right wing opposition opportunistically capitalized on a skirmish over disputed land that left at least eleven people dead to unfairly blame the deaths on President Lugo. It then impeached him after giving him only twenty-four hours to prepare his defense and only two hours to deliver it. The Latin American organizations Unasur and Mercosur suspended the new Paraguayan government. The US spent coup day negotiating a new military base in Paraguay. The word "coup" has never been said.
Though the word “coup” never came from American mouths, American minds were expecting it. As in Honduras, there was a vast gulf between what the government saw and the way it presented it to the people.
As early as 2009, US embassy cables say that Lugo’s political opposition has as its goal to “Capitalize on any Lugo missteps” and “impeach Lugo and assure their own political supremacy”. The cable notes that to achieve their goal, they are willing to “legally” impeach Lugo “even if on spurious grounds”. The US knew it was a coup: they had been tipped off about the strategy and told what it would look like.
Paraguay got less press than Honduras. Bolivia got less than Paraguay.
In Bolivia, WikiLeaks cables reveal that America had approved one hundred and one grants worth over $4 million to help regional governments “operate more strategically” to push a shift in power from the national government of Evo Morales to regional governments. The idea was to rebalance power and weaken the Morales government.
In 2008, violent opposition broke out against the democratically elected government of Evo Morales. Morales declared it an attempted “civic coup d’etat.” The US never condemned the extreme violence of the opposition.
But the US knew that violence was on the menu. A September 18, 2008 cable made public by WikiLeaks warns that the opposition expects “that the dialogue will break down,” and that it “predicts more violence after the dialogue fails.” The cable goes on to say that “Once dialogue breaks down . . . the opposition . . . is generally in agreement that the next stage is to blow up gas lines.”
The Americans not only knew that the opposition was going to intensify the violence, they also were well aware of the possibility of a coup or assassination. A September 24, 2008 cable reveals the opposition willingness to prepare “a trap for the government forces which could lead to a bloodbath” and readiness to “develop, with [US Southern Command Situational Assessment Team], a plan for immediate response in the event of a sudden emergency, i.e., a coup attempt or President Morales’ death.”
The US never named it, denounced it nor stopped it, but it knew about it.
The US has always insisted that it is backing moderate Syrian rebels and not Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra extremists. It has defended its stance in Syria, in part, by claiming it was caught off guard by the sectarian strife and the metamorphosis of the opposition into extremist forces.
But what America knew is very different than its plea in the court of public opinion. The presence of sectarian strife and of extremists in Syria was not a surprise, but a goal.
A WikiLeaks cable dated as early as December 13, 2006 written by the charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Damascus to the Secretary of State shows the embassy recommending the encouragement of sectarianism and tension between Sunni and Shia Syrians. The cable recommends that the US “Play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence,” though it admits those fears are “often exaggerated.” It says that “There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis.” It recommends that the US “coordinate more closely with” Egypt and Saudi Arabia “on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on these issues.” The top US diplomat in Syria is here counseling the exacerbation of sectarianism as a means of undermining the Assad government.
As for extremists, the same cable identifies “the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists.” The embassy sees this presence as one of the “vulnerabilities” for which “there may be actions” the US government can take to “improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising.” The presence of extremists is not an unknown problem, but an anticipated opportunity.
By August 12, 2012, the US government knew that the engine in the Syrian insurgency was the extremists. A classified Defense Intelligence Agency Information Intelligence Report seen by the CIA, FBI, State Department, CENTCOM and others clearly states that ““The salafist [sic], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS and the Islamic State] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
But what America actually knows gets worse: way worse. The report actually says that “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria.” A subsequent section of the report specifically foresees that “ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria”.
So, despite what it was telling the public, the US government was supporting sectarianism and hoping to use extremism to its advantage. It knew the Islamic State was the engine of the insurgency it was riding, and it had a shockingly good idea that an Islamic State could arise out of the situation. That is certainly not what they were telling us they knew.
Though they never called it a coup, the US knew the ousting of the democratically elected president of Ukraine was a coup, because they “midwifed” the coup.
In December 2013, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland told her audience at the Ukraine Foundation Conference that since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the US has “invested over $5 billion to assist Ukraine . . . [and] ensure a secure and prosperous democratic Ukraine.”
But Nuland revealed more than US funding for "democracy promotion" in Ukraine. She was caught plotting who the Americans want to be the winner of the regime change. She can be heard on an intercepted call telling the American ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, that Arseniy Yatsenyuk is America’s choice to replace Yanukovych: “I think Yats is the guy”. And he was!
Less reported, but more important, Pyatt is heard referring to the West needing to “midwife this thing,” a metaphorical, but transparent, admission of America’s lead role in the coup. So the American government knew it was a coup.
As repugnant as is the US government’s knowledge that the tragedy to unfold in Ukraine was caused by a coup, its knowledge of the cast of the coup is at least as revolting. Though the Obama administration downplayed and denied it, they knew that several of the starring roles in the coup featured fascists. The US knew that they were on the same side as several neo-Nazis.
By the time of the Maidan Square protests, the four main opposition parties had already formed an alliance against President Yanukovych. The four allies were Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, Klitchko’s UDAR (Klitchko was Europe’s choice, but Nuland pushed him aside in her conversation with Pyatt: “I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”), Yatsenyuk’s Front for Change and Oleg Tyagnybok’s Svoboda. What’s important about this alliance is that, as we know from Nuland’s phone call, Yatsenyuk was America’s choice. But Yatsenyuk was already allied with Svoboda, and Svoboda is a militantly ultranationalist party that, according to Ukraine expert and professor of Russian and European Politics, Richard Sakwa, recruited neo-Nazis and distributed Ukrainian versions of Nazi tracts.
Despite the Obama administrations trivializing of the claims that the coup involved neo-Nazis, it knew that it did.
During the protests, the defense of the Maidan Square was headed by a quasi-military “commandant”: a post assigned to Andriy Parubiy, one of the original founders of Svoboda. Svoboda would soon be joined by Right Sector (Pravy Sektor) in running the defense of the Maidan. Right Sector is a radical right wing coalition that includes the Ukrainian National Assembly, White Hammer, what Sakwa calls “the avowedly fascist Social-National Assembly, and Stepan Bandera’s All-Ukrainian Organisation Trident. Stepan Bandera became head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in 1933. He would come to lead its most radical wing. Bandera was a virulent nationalist who Sakwa says “espoused . . . an exclusive and ethnically centered definition of the Ukrainian nation, accompanied by murderous denigration of those who allegedly undermined this vision, notably Poles, Jews and Russians. . . .” He allied with the Nazis, including in the slaughter of Jews, Poles and Russians.
Right Sector occupied a place of relative prominence in the Maidan. A Banderite slogan became the main motto of the Maidan. On January 1, 2014, during the Maidan protest, 15,000 people marched in a procession commemorating Bandera’s 150th birthday. The march was supported, not only by Svoboda, as might be expected, but also by Tymoshenko, another Yatsenyuk and American ally. Der Spiegel reported that “. . . without the nationalists right organization, the revolt on Maidan Square would long since have collapsed.”
And, in case the Obama administration didn’t know before, the coup government made it explicit when it took office. Between five and eight core ministries were given to Svoboda and Right Sector, including the deputy Prime Minister. Parubiy, the founder of Svoboda, became head of national security.
So, in Ukraine, as in Honduras, Paraguay, Bolivia and Syria, there has been a massively deceptive disconnect between what the American government has known and what it has told the people it represents: a fundamental failure in democracy, as this brief history of deception has shown.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.